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Review: First Cow – “A slow-burning, meditative exploration of the human condition”

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It’s rather comforting to know that, amidst the bombastic corporate wars of competing cinematic universes oversaturating our screens these days, you can still find good old cinema for the heart and soul. Kelly Reichardt is a master at crafting this kind of stories and if you’re yet to discover her work, the latest entry in her remarkable filmography is the perfect chance to get started.

First Cow is the epitome of all that’s unique about Reichardt’s filmmaking: a slow-burning, meditative exploration of the human condition conveyed through a beautifully cinematic observation of the quotidian and mundane side of life. Add the gorgeous Oregon landscape where she usually operates and the period setting of early American settlers, and you get the full picture of a character-driven, alternative western about friendship and the need for human connection.

Like in most of her films, plot isn’t the focus here but to avoid spoiling the little nuances in this one, suffice to say that First Cow kicks off with a mini prologue in present-day, which sets up a storytelling frame, right before taking us back in time to 1820s Oregon Country where we’re introduced to Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) – a quiet and timid cook who’s traveling with a company of fur trappers and is constantly bullied by his travel companions for not providing them with enough food.

On one of his foraging trips Cookie bumps into King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant on the run after killing a Russian man. Hiding away in a bush all naked, bruised, battered and hungry, King-Lu asks for help and promptly finds it in Cookie. The cook forms an instant connection with this fellow human in need and rescuing him propels much-needed change as he splits from the fur trappers and eventually reunites with King-Lu around the settlements.

The man returns the favour by offering Cookie shelter in his cabin and after hanging out a few days, they form a strong bond that’s soon to be consolidated by an impromptu business enterprise. Lu has travelled the world and dreams about owning a farm whilst Cookie has worked as a baker’s assistant in Boston and would love to open his own bakery in San Francisco. Both men clearly have ambition, but King Lu is the one with business acumen and a more practical eye for opportunity.

When the Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a wealthy British man with the only property in the settlement, lands the first cow in the region, Lu envisions such opportunity in the cow’s milk, which would take Cookie’s baking skills to the next level. His plan however is unlawful as it entails sneaking in and out of the Chief Factor’s estate to extract enough milk to make a good batch of Cookie’s delicious “oily cakes”.

The newly formed business partners start selling the cakes at the local market and since the baked goodies become an instant lucrative hit, our two friends have no choice but to keep illicitly procuring the “secret ingredient”. Their success inevitably attracts the Chief Factor’s attention and when the English man samples the treats, he’s blown away by how much “they taste like London” and asks Cookie if he were up to bake a blueberry cake for a tea party. Our shy baker reluctantly accepts the commission and it’s not difficult to imagine where things might go from there.

Although Cookie thinks they’re playing a dangerous game and should stop now, King-Lu is adamant that “anything worth doing in life is indeed dangerous”. The philosophical ramifications of such a statement would easily lead to socio-political commentary on the birth of the United States, colonialism and genocide, the American dream and capitalism versus a simple life in harmony with Mother Nature but that’s the kind of analysis I’d rather leave to the viewers’ own perception.

There is something entrancing about the apparent simplicity of First Cow, which is encapsulated in the title card appearing before the screen fades in on the opening image. It’s a quote from William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell which reads: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” What struck me as deeply profound and moving as the story unfolds is the film’s focus on how life’s driving force is genuine human connection.

No matter what misadventures our co-protagonists get themselves into, by the end all they care about is each other’s well-being. The value of their friendship transcends any ambition or business opportunity to get wealthy and that’s why I glossed over the prologue’s details and what it foreshadows. It’s an emotional punch that needs to be experienced first-hand and it’s a testament to the brilliantly understated performances and wonderful chemistry of screen partners John Magaro and Orion Lee.

The DVD extras include an insightful behind-the-scenes documentary, featuring extensive interviews with the cast and crew that’s worth watching right after credits roll. Reichardt and frequent writing partner Jonathan Raymond – whose novel The Half-Life the film is based upon – explain how they streamlined the source material through the adaptation process. A story that originally spanned decades and different continents was trimmed and fine-tuned to zero in on a specific period, locale and the two central characters.

It may have started as a budget-induced choice, but it turned out to perfectly fit the story they were trying to tell, which is also reflected in the film’s stylistic approach. The filmmaker and her faithful Director of Photography Christopher Blauvelt highlight how they decided on a 4:3 aspect ratio and sacrifice some of the beautiful landscape that could’ve been captured on 16:9 because that would allow them to emphasise the characters’ bond through some effective close-ups as they are often in frame together. And yes, in case you’re wondering, there’s a whole interview section dedicated to the adorable cow Evie!

First Cow is available on Blu-Ray and DVD and it’s streaming on MUBI.

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